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The two-week period to which amendment No. 116 refers was suggested by NACAB. It is not set in stone—it is an issue for discussion—but I urge the Government to reconsider the principle of separating those two interviews.

Turning briefly to new clause 7 and amendment No. 87, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), there were strong disagreements about the obligations on members of the support group. There is a broader issue at stake, and it is captured better by the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend than by new clause 7. It is an issue not just for members of the support group but for people who have been on incapacity benefit for a long time and wish to participate in such a process. I am passionate about the matter, and I was naturally interested in the exchange about whose constituency had the most IB claimants. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) referred to seaside towns, and my Blackpool constituency has the 15th highest number of IB claimants. People scratch their heads and wonder why that should be the case, but in Blackpool many claimants with medical conditions imported their IB eligibility from former industrial areas. Many claimants in my constituency worked in the mining industry, and came to Blackpool in the 1980s and 1990s, so they have been on IB for 10 or 15 years.

The philosophy of the Government’s reforms is to give a sense of empowerment and openness to such people. I strongly urge the Minister to make more explicit in the Bill the fact that they should be given priority if they wish to opt in. They should not be excluded. I accept that if we wish to achieve quicker results that group will be more difficult to deal with, but it is important, not simply because of my
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constituents’ personal circumstances but because a broader issue is at stake, that they should be kept in the frame.

Roger Berry: The House will be grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind comments about amendment No. 97, as he has saved me the burden of having to speak to it myself.

Mr. Marsden: I am always happy to act in the service of the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): After that little interchange, I take it that the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) has concluded his speech, so I call Mr. Danny Alexander.

Danny Alexander: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), who is eloquent and well informed, as well as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who continues to display the consensual mindset that characterised his deliberations in Committee.

This is an important group of amendments. I support new clause 7, which makes explicit the importance of the support group having equal access to the support offered by pathways to work—a matter to which I shall return. Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4, which I tabled with my hon. Friends, as well as amendments Nos. 57, 58 and 116 to some extent, reflect on the appropriateness of the conditionality regime and the way in which it should apply to work-focused health-related assessments. Amendment No. 3, which would delete clause 10, is a probing amendment, designed to elicit a wider debate about those assessments and the regime in which they operate. Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 relate to specific aspects of the clause and deal with concerns about timing, the conditionality regime and sanctions.

As the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, and as the Minister made clear in Committee, there is a justification for some form of work-focused health-related assessment, which tries to do something different. However, there are tricky issues, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South suggested, such as the appropriate timing and format of those assessments. There are arguments on both sides. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South advanced an argument for a delay, which might be appropriate for some people, but I am more sympathetic to amendment No. 87, which gives discretion to claimants and imposes a requirement on the Department or the company operating on its behalf to consult claimants on the timing of the assessment. It is important to stress that that assessment tries to do something quite different from the assessment of limited capability for work and the assessment of limited capability for work-related activity. Both those assessments are about determining entitlement to benefit. Again, as hon. Members remarked, having two assessments might seem confusing, although the Minister reassured the Committee that the process would be seamless.

None the less, a work-focused health-related assessment which is designed to be more positive and tries to understand what health interventions might be appropriate to help someone get back into work, and
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which immediately follows the two assessments dealing with entitlement to benefit may well cause the problems that have been described. Equally, for claimants in constituencies such as mine, where the nearest assessment centre might be 70 or 80 miles away from their home, requiring two journeys to that centre within a period of two weeks raises the problem identified by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds.

6.30 pm

In that context, I return to an idea that I suggested in Committee—that in the longer term the Department should consider enabling more of a core assessment. At least part of the medical assessment process for incapacity benefit or employment support or allowance, as it will be, is similar to that which might be used for disability living allowance and for industrial injuries disablement benefit, for example.

If it were possible to develop some sort of core assessment, that might offer claimants greater convenience, as opposed to what I have experienced in my constituency, when individuals are required to go to the same assessment centre three times in three weeks for similar but slightly different assessments for different benefits. That seems an unnecessarily burdensome system as it applies to some of the most vulnerable people in society, particularly those who may, in the end, qualify for the support group. I do not think a hard and fast two-week period is right. Empowering claimants to make a judgment for themselves about what would be most appropriate in the circumstances is a more sensible way forward.

There is one outstanding issue that arose in Committee and has not been adequately addressed by Ministers in relation to work-focused health-related assessments—the technical but important matter of the timing of those assessments, and how that relates to the application of sanctions. If, for example, someone takes part in their assessment for limited capability for work-related activity and believes that they should be in the support group, but the assessment finds otherwise and on that basis they refuse to take part in the work-focused health-related assessment, my understanding of what the Minister told the Committee is that although the decision would not be made until it had gone to the decision maker to check that the process had been followed properly, in practice the sanction could be backdated.

In principle, that person could be subject to sanctions for not taking part in the work-focused health-related assessment, which followed immediately from the assessment for limited capability for work-related activity, which followed immediately from the assessment for benefit entitlement, even though the decision about their entitlement to benefit had not at that time been taken. That is a technical but serious issue, which I hope the Minister will clarify.

Natascha Engel: It is important to realise that the decision-maker is so called because he makes the decision. If the personal capability assessment is challenged, it will be referred to the decision maker to make a decision. I do not think it is possible for the
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sanction to be backdated to when the personal capability assessment was originally made.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful for that intervention. The Minister was not as clear as that in Committee. If he endorses those remarks in full, that will provide the reassurance that I seek and represent progress on our interchanges in Committee. Timing, decision making and sanctions, and how they apply are all important aspects of the work-focused health-related assessment that need to be resolved, as is the issue of appeals and how those apply.

With reference to new clause 7, it is important that members of the support group be informed of their entitlement to take advantage of the support that is available through the pathways to work system. For reasons slightly different from those advanced by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, it is important that new clause 7 be supported. It makes it clear that people from the support group can volunteer to take part in the support group pathways to work, without thereby giving up their membership of the support group. It may be a technical point but it is an important clarification to make it clear to those people, as the Minister said, that there is no possibility of sanctions being imposed, even if they then choose to take part in work-related activity and so on.

Mr. Hunt: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most important reasons for making it explicit in the Bill that members of the support group should be entitled to volunteer for work-related activity is the concern that many people have about the financing of the pathways roll-out? If the funding for the pathways roll-out is indeed 40 per cent. less per head than it was for the pilot programmes, there is a risk of claimants or customers whom it would be an expensive option to look after receiving second-best treatment. That is why writing it into the Bill that people in the support group are entitled to volunteer for the benefits of the pathways rollout is extremely important.

Danny Alexander: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman includes among his many qualities that of being a clairvoyant, but he introduces the point that I intended to address. He raises an important issue. It has been made clear on all sides that there is a general wish that any claimant of employment support allowance, whether a member of the support group or of the work-related activity group, should be able to benefit from the support that is available under pathways to work. However, there is a dilemma that needs to be crystallised so that the Minister has a chance to respond to it.

If the burden of the new clause and the other amendments in this group is that the entitlement to take part in pathways to work should be made more explicit, it must also be clear that the support being discussed is available. I do not think I had a satisfactory answer from the Minister in Committee, if I may say so. The question is whether the commitment of funding to enable the scale and extent of pathways to work support that is hinted at by the amendments and by the Bill is available in practice.

Calculations that I have made suggest that in the pathways to work pilot areas the average cost of
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providing support was £571 per claimant. Given that the Government have allocated only £360 million to the rollout of pathways to work and to other aspects of the Bill, such as the IT systems required for the new employment support allowance, that would suggest that it is proposed to spend less then £327 per claimant in the rollout. For new claimants alone, the level of resources will not be adequate to provide the same degree of service as has been provided in the pathways to work pilots, which are widely agreed to have been successful.

I am concerned that unless we get some clear answers from the Minister about where the resources will come from to allow an adequate level of support through pathways to work so that, for example, all those who may be members of a support group can volunteer freely and of their own volition to take part in pathways to work, in the knowledge that support is available to them, the Bill could end up raising and then dashing the hopes of those people. All of us would wish to avoid that state of affairs. The lack of funding and of financial resource for the rollout of pathways to work, if it is to be extended to all claimants, including those in the support group, is a major weakness in the Government’s proposal. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to reassure the House that he has an answer to that.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 57 and 58, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry).

There has been much talk, speculation and, frankly, mischief-making about the funding available under the pathways to work programme when it is rolled out nationally. I recommend that people read the report by the Work and Pensions Committee, which is an excellent piece of work that nails those ideas. I am concerned about the suggested figure of 1 per cent. as regards sanctions under the pathways to work pilots. My memory is that up to June last year, after two and a half years of the operation of the pilots, 36 people had been sanctioned. That is way below 1 per cent.—it is not even 0.1 per cent. or 0.01 per cent. That reflects the way in which the pilots have been run and the fact that they are the model for the future. Members of the Work and Pensions Committee visited many of the pilots, where it was staggering to see how people had had their eyes opened to opportunities that had been denied them, sometimes for decades. We should also remember—this in no way denigrates any incapacity benefit claimant—that many people in work with similar conditions to claimants have had opportunities to find ways through those difficulties that have been denied to too many other people for too long.

Amendment No. 57 would give an individual required to take the work-focused health-related assessment some choice as to when it takes place. There are all sorts of reasons why that would be a positive move. I have a great of sympathy with the argument that it is a seamless process if the claimant has the personal capability assessment and then goes straight on to the work-focused health-related assessment, as the vast majority of people would probably prefer. There should, however, still be room for some choice. I should say that when the amendments were tabled it
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was not clear that the medical assessor will give the claimant an indication of their recommendation at the PCA. That is a welcome step forward. There will always be cases where it is crystal clear that the claimant should be in one or other of the two defined groups, but in those grey areas in the middle a fine judgment will eventually lie with the decision maker. Other factors will come into play for people who may be on medication, have child care responsibilities, or are unable to fit in two assessments in one day.

When the reorganisation of the assessment centres was proposed a couple of years ago, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), did a sterling job—forgive the pun—by listening to concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House. Some people will still have a long way to go for an assessment, but the layout of the centres is now far better than what was originally proposed. However, there are still difficulties. In metropolitan areas with off-peak bus fare schemes, lots of people want to travel after 9.30 am and need to get back home before 3.30 pm. Introducing an element of choice as to when the claimant takes the work-focused health-related assessment would be beneficial and would address the lack of confidence felt by those in the disability community about the Government’s commitment to the process.

6.45 pm

On amendment No. 58, there is still some confusion about when the sanction applies, despite the words of my colleague on the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). As I understand it, the PCA and the work-focused health-related assessment take place in the first 13 weeks after a claim has been made and determine entitlement to a benefit from 13 weeks onwards, so the claimant gets a decision on a future benefit. Failure to do the work-focused health-related assessment can lead to a retrospective sanction after week 13 in terms of a benefit to which the person may still not know that they are definitely entitled. If the PCA and the medical assessor say, “I’m not quite sure—I think you’re borderline”, that person then has to make a decision on whether to take the work-focused health-related assessment straight away or take their chances and subsequently launch an appeal. Where does that leave everybody? We have heard many times today that 50 per cent. of appeals are successful, but we should bear in mind that not all refusals go to appeal and that the 50 per cent. success rate relates only to those that do. The figure is still too high, which gives rise to questions about the review process. If the system is to work properly, we need to take that element out of the equation as far as possible and get down to virtually zero appeals.

For clarity’s sake, people should have the choice of delaying the second part of the assessment pending the decision on the PCA so that they can see whether they have been judged eligible for the basic entitlement before they become subject to sanctions. That bureaucratic mismatch requires clarification. I hope that the Minister can reassure me, because we do not want the good work that has been done to be spoiled unnecessarily.

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Mr. Boswell: I rise in support of new clause 7, to which I have attached my name.

The earlier part of the discussion, which got quite heated at times, related to benefits, to which any sanctions would normally be applied. When I raised the possibility of sanctions with the Minister in Standing Committee on 24 October, he helpfully replied:

I think that that was an attempt to reassure me, although he was less explicit on the second point, to which I shall return in a moment. It is pretty clear that somebody in the support group will not be sanctioned because they have refused to participate in a work-related activity interview, but that does not quite answer the point. As several hon. Members have said, there is uncertainty about situations where membership of the support group has not been confirmed because the second interview has not yet been formally decided.

There is an underlying and greater concern further down the track. If somebody on the support group decides that they would like to volunteer, perhaps because they are finding their current position increasingly uncomfortable, they may fear that their application for a work-focused interview could trigger a reconsideration of their position under clause 9 as regards suitability for work-related activity.

Adam Afriyie: I was tapping my feet and gritting my teeth earlier because it is not clear whether someone from the support group volunteering to have a work-focused interview, the outcome of which was positive, would trigger some sort of mechanism. If it did not, it would certainly enter the mind of the person who was considering attending a work-focused interview that it might trigger an event.

Mr. Boswell: That is the nature of my concern. There is an underlying fear that, if people who have been put, for objective reasons, on the support group—neither we nor the Minister want to write them off; that is not the accusation—volunteer, people may judge that as an admission of not needing to be on the support group, ergo they should lose their entitlement to benefits or enter the sanctions regime.

Other points that I raised in Committee about the available resources are worth rehearsing—indeed, other hon. Members have done so. It remains my fear that, if resources are tightened for reasons beyond the control of the current Minister or, to be balanced, of the Administration, there may not be enough money to go round and the people in the support group would be the first to be cut out because they might not be perceived as cost-effective.

A subsidiary concern, which the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) mentioned, relates to contractors. If the contract is not well written, there may be an incentive to drop the hard cases because they are expensive.

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